Religious freedom

The Mormon Church was founded by Joseph Smith. He claimed to have been visited by the Angel Moroni in 1827 who told him where he could find golden plates that Smith would translate and publish as the Book of Mormon.

Smith won many followers, but also angered others who accused him of fraud and blasphemy. By 1831 the Mormon Church had more than 1,000 followers, and Smith decided to move them to set up a City of God.

Why did the Mormons move to Salt Lake?

Illustration depicting a popular view of Mormons and Salt Lake City, Utah territory.
Illustration depicting a popular view of Mormons and Salt Lake City, Utah territory

An important reason for moving was that the Mormons wanted to escape the non-Mormons they despised, and called the Gentiles.

They thought Gentiles were ...the lowest of men and disliked their midnight parties, their sabbath-breaking, horse racing and gambling.

The Mormons also had other reasons for moving:

  • The Gentiles persecuted them. In 1846 Brigham Young (by now leader of the Mormons) told the US President, James K. Polk, that the Mormons had decided to leave the country for the sake of peace.
  • The government persecuted them, eg:
    • Governor Lilburn Boggs issued an exterminating order against them.
    • The state governor of Illinois asked them to leave. (Until 1848 the Great Salt Lake was part of Mexico - ie outside US government jurisdiction altogether - which added to its attraction.)
  • Brigham Young's influence was the critical factor:
    • he was a firm believer, a man of iron will, an organiser
    • he was believed by the Mormons to be their prophet - appointed by God to lead them
    • he decided to go to Salt Lake, organised the march, and told Mormons that Salt Lake was "the promised land"

The travels of the Mormons

This chart shows the main stages in the travels of the Mormons, as they moved from place to place before settling in the Great Salt Lake.

Mormon travels 1831-1847

Date Destination Attraction Reason for leaving
1831Kirtland, OhioA new start away from New York State, where Joseph Smith lived.In 1832, Smith was tarred and feathered by locals. In 1837 economic depression caused the bank he had founded to go bankrupt, and the Mormons were driven out altogether.
1837MissouriAn area where few people lived, so offered some sanctuary.The Mormons were attacked by mobs, and an extermination order was issued by Governor Boggs. The Mormons angered people by speaking out against slavery and in favour of Native American rights.
1839Nauvoo, IllinoisA swamp area, which most settlers avoided.The Mormons were hated by the locals, especially when Smith began to sanction polygamy. In 1844, Smith was killed by a mob.
1847Great Salt LakeDescribed as an 'unpopulous' country where 'a good living will require hard labour, and consequently will be coveted by no other people'.

Problems and solutions on the journey West

On their trek to the Great Salt Lake the Mormons faced many problems, all of which they had to overcome:

Four key problems

Problem Solution
Poorly prepared - in Spring 1846, mobs looted Mormons' workshops, forcing them to leave Nauvoo before they were ready for their long trek to Salt Lake.Brigham Young (Mormon leader) sent advance 'pioneers' ahead, to plant crops, build houses, set up staging posts for the travellers.
The journey - the Mormons faced a journey of 2,250km, which made them 'weary and footsore'. They endured 'stormy weather' in winter and 'excessive heat' in summer.No solution, Mormons had to 'endure'.
Organisation - on the journey 15,000 Mormons faced accidents, breakdowns, mouldy food, fever, lack of medical facilities, Native American attacks.Young taught Mormons how to manage a wagon train, and how to defend themselves against attack at night.
Faint hearts - some Mormons preferred Oregon. Another suggested California, and said 'nobody on earth' would want to live at Salt Lake.Young said:"If there is a place on this earth that nobody wants, that's the place I'm looking for."

Problems and solutions at Salt Lake

On arrival at Great Salt Lake things didn't get easier straight away. The Mormons faced further problems, which they also had to overcome. Life at Salt Lake was hard, and the Mormons were tired out and worried. Salt Lake was a desolate and forsaken spot with little rain.

The climate is severe and changeable ... the cattle die. Crickets and grasshoppers swarm in myriads... Frost is very destructive...Unknown Mormon traveller
Drawing of men chopping wood in the workhouse.
Drawing of men chopping wood in the workhouse

The Mormons had to develop irrigation schemes, using snow water from the mountains - by 1859 Salt Lake was well-filled with peach, apple and other fruit.

There were no trees in Salt Lake, so the Mormons had to make houses from mud bricks - by 1855 there were 'warm, comfortable, neat' houses and a 'magnificent' city, with a temple, a tabernacle and hall.

There were not enough people for the community to be entirely self-sufficient - so the Mormon leader Brigham Young called Mormons from all over the world to go to Salt Lake to help out. As a result, large numbers of Mormons migrated to Salt Lake City (although many died on the way).

The Mormons had no manufacturers, and although they tried to set up industries, they failed - so necessary items often had to be made by hand.

In 1848 the US occupied New Mexico, where Salt Lake was situated, and the US government refused Young's attempt to have a 'free and independent' Mormon state of 'Deseret'. In 1857, 120 members of a wagon train were murdered in an attack by Mormon militiamen. In response the US government sent in 1,500 troops. Eventually a compromise was reached, and the state of Utah (much smaller than 'Deseret' would have been) was created.